Court Rejects Dependency Pleas From Undocumented Teens

In the latest in a series of similar cases, a South Florida appeals court Wednesday rejected legal-dependency requests from teens who fled Guatemala and Honduras and entered the United States as undocumented immigrants.

A determination of dependency, based on issues such as abandonment by parents or abuse, would help the teens apply for a special immigration status and seek permanent residency, according to court documents.

But divided panels of the 3rd District Court of Appeal turned down the dependency requests Wednesday in three cases. One of the cases, for example, involved a teen, identified by the initials B.R.C.M., who lives with his godmother in Miami after leaving Guatemala at age 14 and entering the United States in Texas.

The appeals court said the teen, who had been living with his aging grandmother in Guatemala and said he feared being forced into a gang in the country, could not meet the legal tests for showing that he is abandoned, abused or neglected. Also, it pointed to the role of the federal government in immigration issues.

"There is no allegation in this case that anyone has ever laid a hand or threatened to lay a hand on B.R.C.M., even while he resided in his home country, Guatemala,'' said the ruling, written by appeals-court Judge Frank Shepherd and joined by Judge Thomas Logue. "His problem is one typical of all minors who are not safe outside their homes because of a government that is unable to provide them, their family members and neighbors a safe environment in which to go about their daily lives. Sadly, what exists in Guatemala is what exists in the majority of countries of the world today --- lawless nations and societies which do not provide or do not choose to provide freedom, safety and security to their citizens. Whether or not to accommodate individuals of any age into this country on the basis of the conditions of the country in which they were born or reside is not for us to decide. It is a matter of federal policy entrusted to the United States Congress."

But Judge Vance Salter dissented in all three cases, raising concerns that lower courts have summarily turned down such petitions. He argued that lower courts should take testimony and make detailed findings about teens' claims in the dependency requests.

"We cannot lose sight of the fact that each immigrant juvenile petitioner is a child inside our state borders, that he or she may have scars that go unseen, and that each such petitioner is equal to other Florida children under the law,'' Salter wrote in a dissent involving a teen who left Honduras and crossed the border in Texas in 2014. The teen, identified by the initials S.F.A.C., was later released to his mother, who was living in Miami.

Wednesday's rulings came after a series of appeals-court decisions in similar cases. As an example, Shepherd cited six earlier cases in which the 3rd District Court of Appeal had upheld lower-court decisions denying dependency.

Along with the cases involving the teens identified as B.R.C.M. and S.F.A.C., the other decision Wednesdayinvolved a teen, identified by the initials E.P.N., who left Guatemala, crossed the border and was later released to her mother in Homestead, according to a dissent by Salter.